The bardic arts of song, poetry and storytelling are a strong part of Welsh culture and tradition. And every year in Wales, these arts are celebrated on a grand scale at the National Eisteddfod, a huge week-long festival where musicians, dancers, artists, poets and singers compete through the medium of the Welsh language to win prestigious prizes. In this article we look at the Welsh storytelling tradition, and share some of our favourite Snowdonia myths and legends.
Many visitors are drawn to Snowdonia for its evocative image as a misty, magical country steeped in history, tradition and folklore. Bards, druids, mythical beings and a strong connection with King Arthur go hand-in-hand with our mysterious, mountainous landscape and ancient, musical-sounding language. The romance, the magic and the mythology of Snowdonia make it just as popular a holiday destination for history and folklore addicts as it is for adrenalin junkies.
In simpler times, natural phenomena were explained away by the superstitious as magic or miracles, warring dragons or battling giants, or the work of the ‘Tylwyth Teg’, or ‘Fair Folk’. We may laugh today, but centuries ago it was considered perfectly plausible that a pile of rocks could appear on a mountainside because a giantess had taken fright and dropped the contents of her apron!
In the true tradition of the ancient bards and storytellers, many old tales survive to this day, having been passed down orally from one generation to the next throughout history. Myth, legend, superstition or fairy tale – whatever you choose to call the folklore of Snowdonia, there are plenty of surviving tales to choose from, each one as colourful as the next. Here are a few of our favourites.
St Twrog’s Stone
In the village of Maentwrog, just outside Blaenau Ffestiniog, an unusual boulder stands next to the porch in the churchyard. Legend has it that a local giant, Twrog, disgusted by the pagan rituals being carried out in the village, threw a large rock down from a nearby hill which destroyed the unholy altar. His followers later erected the church where the boulder had landed.
The Mermaid’s Curse
Many hundreds of years ago a group of fishermen caught a mermaid in their nets while fishing in the Conwy estuary. Ignoring her pleas for freedom, they paraded her through the town until, like a fish, the mermaid started to suffocate on air. As she died, the mermaid cursed the men of Conwy, their wives, their children, and future generations. She cursed the buildings, future buildings, and vowed that Conwy would suffer many drownings, wars, diseases and disasters until the end of time.
In 1966 Conwy Town Hall, which stood on the spot where the mermaid was said to have died, burned down. Several locals said they heard the mermaid’s ghostly laughter as the building burned. The land on which it had stood was later developed as a library, but within two months of completion it had burned down again – and once again, the mermaid’s laughter was heard through the flames.
The Sunken Town
In the basin of the valley where Lake Bala (Llyn Tegid in Welsh) lies, there was once a town. This town was inhabited by immoral and selfish people, and ruled by a very cruel and wicked man, who one night held a huge party in his palace to celebrate the birth of his first child.
A local harpist was ordered to provide entertainment at the party. Despite hating the ruler, who ruled the town harshly, the harpist knew it would be very dangerous to refuse, so reluctantly attended and played for the guests.
As the party progressed the harpist heard a strange whispering behind him. He turned and saw a little bluebird which kept repeating the same word over and over again: “Vengeance! Vengeance!” – at the same time beckoning the harpist to follow it.
The harpist left the palace and followed the bird up a hillside, where he slept all night. When he awoke the next morning, he looked down at the town and saw that it had disappeared, and in its place was an enormous lake. And there, floating on the surface of the lake, was the young man’s harp.
King Arthur in Snowdonia
There are many folk tales placing Arthur, legendary King of the Britons, in Snowdonia. Perhaps the most dramatic of these claims that Arthur fought his last battle in the region, at a pass near Cwm Dyli. When Arthur was mortally wounded by a hail of enemy arrows, his men raised a cairn over his body, which still stands today and is called Carnedd Arthur – Arthur’s Cairn – while the mountain pass where the ambush happened is called Bwlch Y Saethau, or Pass of the Arrows.
After Arthur died, his surviving knights entered a cave below the summit of Y Lliwedd and the entrance was sealed behind them. This cave is known as Ogof Llanciau Eryri, or Cave of the Young Men of Snowdonia. It is said that the knights slumber there still, fully armoured and armed, waiting for their king to awaken and fulfil the ancient prophesy that Arthur merely sleeps until Wales is in mortal danger, whereupon he will arise and save his country.